By Vic Howard
For many years, my bookshelf was filled with spy thrillers. Then the Wall came down and Le Carré, Bagley, Ludlum and all the rest found themselves out of a job and me thirsting for a good read. Patrick O’Brian’s naval history tales helped a little, as did Philip Kerr’s Berlin Weimar detective Bernie Gunther, but I have also had a lifelong interest in Sci-Fi. I have to admit to being a bit out of touch with recent Sci-Fi literature, though. These days, it’s mainly Netflix videos, but I find most of them too depressing. The word for it, I believe, is dystopian. Predictions of the future used to be more optimistic.
The golden age of Sci-Fi is generally regarded as being from the 1930s to the 1960s. Writers of that period were more optimistic about the future. OK, so Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), wasn’t exactly a Utopia we would want to inhabit and George Orwell really got us all very worried in 1948 with his 1984. Huxley had second thoughts 30 years after writing Brave New World, but was still pessimistic when he revisited it. The film Brave New World, with its use of bad language, views on religion, race and nudity managed to upset pretty well everyone in its day and was banned in the US and Ireland. The best sort of marketing there is.
Tell anyone you like Sci-Fi, especially your wife or girlfriend, and she will say, “Rubbish!” The misconception is that Sci-Fi must always be about spaceships and aliens with big ears. How wrong that is! It ought to be called Future-Fi but Fu-Fi sounds more like a Japanese martial art than a form of literature. John Wyndham and George Orwell never mentioned spaceships or aliens, nor did Huxley. I have to admit, though, that there were plenty of them in the Star Trek TV programmes I avidly watched when they first appeared in 1967. They were often inherently moralistic, which no doubt made them acceptable to US opinion that had earlier banned Huxley. Star Trek was not true Sci-Fi, since it seemed to reflect present-day attitudes and thinking. Even the mini-skirted uniforms reflected the fashion of 1967.
The best Sci-Fi available was to be found in books, of course. I soaked up every word Issac Asimov wrote, particularly about robots, but also his visions of a future society in his Galactic Empire series. Robots always fascinated me and Asimov was way before his time in that regard. They’re a hot subject today, but not back then. Asimov was a passionate writer of Sci-Fi, but his day job was professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He was a prolific writer and could never be accused of writing rubbish! He once admitted that he based his concept of ‘Psycho-History,’ which appears in the Foundation series of books, on the predictable reactions of molecular structures. He wanted to get away from spaceship Sci-Fi and created what he called Social Science Fiction, which dealt with the future problems of complex societies. Definitely not rubbish!
Asimov had a contemporary rival in the Sci-Fi world: Arthur C. Clarke. Between them, they pretty well covered the whole gamut of future science writing at that time, though they were by no means alone. What appealed to me most was the fact they wrote what they thought the future would be like. There was no fantasy or magic in their world. Asimov’s robots were capable of pretty well anything a human could do, but there was sound scientific thinking behind their development. He even dealt with the psychological problems that could and probably will develop in robotic ‘brains’. In fact, he created a female character called Susan Calvin, the first Robo-psychologist. I’m pretty sure that Asimov was in love with Susan Calvin. Oh, the problems writers have!
Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination was even more earthbound. It was as though he could see the future. Things he wrote about frequently came about in the real world. Geostatic satellites, for example, were his idea. In one story, he has a wheelchair-bound character who lives a full life through a medium we now recognise as Virtual Reality. The replicator used in Star Trek to produce anything from Cpt Picard’s Earl Grey tea to any solid object was, in fact, one of Clarke’s ideas. We’re not quite there yet, but the 3D printer is a good start. An object can today be scanned digitally in London, sent by internet to Sydney Australia, and reproduced there in a 3D printer. Arthur would have loved that!
Asimov may have been more futuristic in his robot tales, but robots today are becoming almost as well developed, at least mechanically, as Asimov’s. His robots had a ‘positronic brain’ which we would call Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, if quantum computing ever gets off the ground, might well one day become a reality.
Serious thought is now being applied to the dangers of developing AI. Asimov foresaw this problem 80 years ago, which prompted him to write the Three Laws Of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.
He dated these laws as having been published in 2058 AD, though they were actually written in the 1940s. They’re relatively simple and straightforward compared to the problems being envisaged today, but they nevertheless address the basic fears that the thought of AI raises. Even Stephen Hawking warned us of its dangers before he died.
Sci-Fi writers of the past often got it wrong, but the reason they got it wrong was because they based the future on their present. Arthur C. Clarke got it right when he said in a 1964 video that predictions of the future only have a chance of being correct if they sound utterly impossible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwELr8ir9qM. He then went on to describe what he meant, by saying: “In the future, in say the year 2000, we shall be able to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world, no matter where they happen to be… People will be able to conduct their business from any location and not need to travel to meet.” Fantastic ideas at the time, but everyday life for us now.
He went on to speculate that human evolvement was reaching its limit and that the future of consciousness and intelligence would be mechanical. He predicted mechanical intelligence would become superior to human intelligence because it can work at the speed of light and will out-think us. He seemed reconciled to this being the future and didn’t speculate on any negative aspects. He thought it would allow mankind to relax and enjoy life. Clarke had a benevolent view of mankind. Asimov, however, said in 1960 that, if man could solve all his problems during the next 50 years, then the future was bright. If man didn’t manage this, then the future was bleak. He later admitted that the future was looking bleak.
I quite often find myself wondering which comes first, the idea or the science. For example, the next time you enter a supermarket and the doors open before you like magic, think about why it happens. Before the Star Trek TV series, nobody had ever heard of a door opening as a person approached it. Would the doors be opening for you as they do, if a writer had not had the brilliant idea of including them in a TV Sci-Fi series 50 years ago? Arthur C. Clarke’s visions of the year 2000, which he talks about in the 1964 video, are all developments of his original idea of geostatic satellites. You could say that he is indirectly responsible for the future he predicted. His vision of intelligence jumping from man to machine was, I think, too benign.
In his 1984, George Orwell had visions of a future in which everyone was monitored by cameras wherever they went. Have you been to London in recent years? Philip Dick wrote a short story that was later made into the film Minority Report, in which a future police force will be able to arrest people before they committed a crime, because their normal pattern of movement had changed. Both these worlds seemed far-fetched and unwanted at the time they were written. London has almost as many cameras as people and often uses facial recognition software to find people. China now employs computer algorithms that monitor the entire population of some cities. Facial recognition software knows and records every individual’s behaviour pattern. Whenever an individual veers from their usual pattern of behaviour, an alert is started that looks for possible criminal action. The Chinese authorities have stated that their vision is to abolish crime by recognising it before it is committed; just as Philip K. Dick predicted they would.
The question is, would these systems be in operation if a few writers had not first envisaged them? I suggest it is writers who sow the seed of ideas that develop in reality. There are dozens of brilliant Sci-Fi writers whose ideas have turned into reality. Asimov and Clarke were not alone. Eric Drexler’s nanotechnology is another field that was incredible when first conceived. Self-replicating machines the size of molecules are no longer impossible and are the subject of serious development.
Cyberspace was once the vision of a writer who envisioned being able to enter his computer world. Cyberspace is now a reality populated by every form of low life, though not quite as literally as the writer saw it. Facebook has even been renamed Meta Platforms Inc and plans are for a ‘metaverse’ where members will be able to create avatars of themselves and live out an existence in cyberspace, pretending to be somebody other than who they really are and interacting with other avatars who could be anybody. Not quite the actual ‘being-there’ of the writer’s concept but, like the 3D printer, on the way to it.
Sci-Fi writing is essential for the development of ideas. It doesn’t always get it right and it often spawns ideas that are misused, but rubbish it definitely is not, if well written. The sad thing is that good ideas are often misused. Most people are not as idealistic as Arthur C. Clarke, so his vision of mass, instant communication is blacker than he would have liked. Dystopia is, unfortunately, a more likely future than Utopia.
(c) Vic Howard, 2022
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Asimov, however, said in 1960 that, if man could solve all his problems during the next 50 years, then the future was bright. If man didn’t manage this, then the future was bleak.